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Port: It's time for a harder look at Russia's alleged meddling in the American energy industry

How much of the often violent activism against things like oil development and oil pipelines is an organic part of American politics, and how much of it was the result of Russian manipulations and

Protesting against Keystone XL pipeline
A demonstrator holds a sign in protest against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in San Francisco, California Feb. 3, 2014.
Stephen Lam / Reuters
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MINOT, N.D. — For years Americans have witnessed the energetic, and often illegal, demonstrations against the domestic energy industry.

The Dakota Access Pipeline in central North Dakota was built by workers operating amid brutal violence from political extremists who had no compunctions about vandalizing their equipment and putting them in danger.

The Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota was much the same story. Workers built that line in accordance with all the appropriate state and federal regulations while being harassed by thuggish, destructive demonstrators.

These events have been well covered, but they raise a question for which we don't have a good answer: Where does the money come from to fund these activities?

The protesters who wave signs and chant, who vandalize and intimidate and provoke confrontations with law enforcement, are well-supported and supplied. They have legal defense funds, bail money, and lawyers. They have food and drink and money for travel. They have an army of professionals deploying sophisticated communications and marketing strategies that package their activities for easy consumption by the public and the press.

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Those things aren't free.

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There is hubris in the belief that judicial edicts settle contentious political questions.

Some of the money comes from like-minded citizens who, whatever we might think of the decision, feel that violent demonstrations against pipelines and energy development are something worth supporting.

But what if there were something more nefarious going on?

What if one of Russia's many efforts to bolster its power by sowing discord and chaos in the west involved the financing of an extreme environmental movement that inhibited American energy production, leaving more market share for itself?

It's been talked about, by serious people, for years now. In 2014 , as Russia was annexing Crimea, then-NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is also a former Prime Minister of Denmark, warned that Russia was working to undermine American and European fossil fuel production.

“I have met allies who can report that Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas," Rasmussen said during a speech in London .

That wasn't NATO's official stance, but as Merrill Matthews notes in The Hill , another NATO official did confirm to The Guardian that, “Russia has been using a mix of hard and soft power in its attempt to recreate a sphere of influence, including through a campaign of disinformation on many issues, including energy.”

In 2017 two members of Congress — Representatives Lamar Smith and Randy Weber, both Republicans from Texas — sent a letter to then-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin making the circumstantial case for Russian meddling in the politics around energy development.

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Among those cited was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In a speech about her time as the head of the State Department, Clinton recounted the challenges presented by Russian influence. "We were even up against phony environmental groups, and I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort," she reportedly said. "'Oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you,' and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia."

These concerns, anecdotal and circumstantial as they may be, have not provoked a lot of action from the news media and the government.

For reasons that aren't hard to comprehend. Energy politics, like so many other issue areas, is polarized. The idea that groups like the Sierra Club may be receiving Russian money, filtered through nonprofits as the Smith-Weber letter suggests, to disrupt American energy development is sensational to the point of being almost unbelievable.

And yet, as we watch Vladimir Putin prosecute a bloody-minded agenda in Ukraine, as we've seen example after example of Russia's expansive and pervasive use of tools like social media to manipulate the politics of other countries, is it really so hard to believe?

We know Putin's Russia uses its prolific energy output as a cudgel to attain its political aims. Why wouldn't Putin try to make that cudgel heavier and more fearsome by undermining energy production in places like America and Europe, this creating more global dependence on Russia?

What we need are facts. Serious-minded inquiry to get to the bottom of what's been happening.

"Serious" is a tall order for Congress these days, but there is an effort afoot. The House Commerce Committee is taking a look, but that won't be enough, but we need more, and it needs to rise above the typical partisan recriminations that are rote for these sort of inquiries.

We know the Russians have tried to meddle in our elections.

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We know some very influential Americans — like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and former President Donald Trump — are committed to espousing Russian dogmas about Ukraine and other matters, and whatever their motivations, we know the Russians are loving it.

They're sending memos to one another about it .

If these people, if these groups, are pushing a political agenda that's convenient for Putin because that's what they truly believe is the right course of action, then that's merely stupid.

If they're motivated by certain inducements or manipulations coming from Russia? That's something else entirely.

Something that might truly be worthy of the word "treason."

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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